Monday, September 22, 2008

The Big Simile

So this past weekend I watched The Big Sleep, which made me think back to this summer, when I enjoyed reading Michael Chabon's The Yiddish Policemen's Union. In the Philadelphia heat, there's nothing more refreshing than a hard-boiled detective story set in the frozen reaches of Alaska.

As a poet, I love similes and metaphors, and Raymond Chandler's writing was laced with figurative language that waltzed into unexpected realms:

"The General spoke again, slowly, using his strength as carefully as an out-of-work show-girl uses her last good pair of stockings." --The Big Sleep

Chabon takes Chandler's lead. He pushes his metaphors to their limits in his reimagining of the classic detective story. And he lays his similes on thick and heavy, like jam on a piece of crusty bread. (See, now I'm even in on it.)

Here are two examples (out of many) from Chabon's novel (both from page 107):

"His full ashy beard flutters in the wind like bird fluff caught on a barbed-wire fence."


"Standing next to Zimbalist, in front of the arched stone door of the shop, a beardless young bachelor holds an umbrella to keep snow off the old fart's head. The black cake of the kid's hat is already dusted with a quarter inch of frosting. Zimbalist gives him the attention you give a tree in a pot."

I've never thought of a snow-covered hat being like a frosted cake, but I'm right there with Chabon (and I'm suddenly hungry for dessert). I've always been at a loss for explaining the fine line between making a wonderful, unexpected metaphor, and one that's just too weird to be understood. A successful one seems to gesture toward something fundamental, an unspeakable connection that's written in our blood.

My favorite simile, by the way, is from Jeffrey McDaniel's poem, "D":

"[You were] seductive, like watching an archer
untie her bow."

That's what similes can do: perfectly describe the indescribable. And if McDaniel's lines aren't a spot-on vision of the seductive, I don't know what is.


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